‘Kindling’ by Stephen Livingston

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

Kindling Stephen Livingston
Stephen Livingston’s short story ‘Choose Your Future’ was one of the winning seventeen stories to appear in Scotland Into the New Era, a collection of short stories published by Canongate that celebrated the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. This story also heads up Kindling, the writer’s first collection of a dozen stories. It’s a fitting reappearance for the short as Scotland reappraises her political powers and role within the Union. I bought Scotland Into the New Era when it first came out back in 2000. It’s interesting reading ‘Choose Your Future’ again, a story effectively date stamped by its decade, being somewhat wrought from the tracks of Trainspotting. Written in the second person you are told it is “decision time…time for you to choose.” A Ewan McGregor hybrid of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Mark Renton delivers the question, but Donald Dewar (Scotland’s First Minister at the time) dressed as a clown is also present to offer advice. Bill Drummond, Ian Wilmut, Dolly the Sheep all appear to convince you to choose a future. It’s an accomplished tale, a little derivative perhaps, but Livingston sweeps you along fairly effortlessly.

‘Recycling’ is another prize-winning story. It concerns a household battling to keep itself together. Angela attends school, whilst her mother Mags has turned to alcohol after finding out her husband was having an affair with one of his students.

Oh, the irony of it all. Her working to support the family while he researched his doctorate in Moral Philosophy and tutored undergraduates in Ethics.

This is a technique that Livingston favours, labouring little nuggets of circumstantial information so that they ultimately appear contrived or caricatured. Sometimes he pulls it off, but a few stories in, I found it lessening the impact the story could have made. This short ends with the mum determined to make a new go of it. “Recycle herself.” Underscoring the title of the story here is unnecessary. The few remaining paragraphs that follow are poignantly understated and handled much more dexterously. Mags takes the first few steps of regaining control of her own life and mending broken bonds with her daughter. It’s well handled but undone by those loose words thrown down beforehand.

The writer has a good ear for rhythm of speech in dialect. The next short, ‘The Waster’s Tale’, won the EndPapers Tales Series prize. A modern inebriated Canterbury Tale, relocated to Glasgow and written in the local first person. Wine for breakfast, the pub for lunch, a club for supper and topped off with a short stay in a police cell. The following morning begins afresh with a quest for picking mushrooms. Livingston creates a memorable character and the tale is well-paced and funny:

Jist aroon the corner fae the scaffoldin’ buildin’ there wiz a nice comfy lookin’ bush, so ah jumps intae it an’ right enough it wiz really comfy. The branches hud jist enough give in them tae support ma body weight an act like a springy mattress. John dived intae the bush beside mae an’ agreed it wiz a good place tae lie aboot.

By turn, ‘The Wheel of Justice’ is a clumsy, farcical story. Yes, this is supposed to be satire, but it doesn’t excuse the heavy handedness of the text. A TV game show whereby previously wronged contestants can exact revenge by winning the opportunity to execute someone on death row. Rainbow, the ‘executionee…flashes a feral smile’. The host is a Christian fundamentalist Bob Vicarage (geddit?) who asks the questions:

“…what former football star was acquitted after murdering his wife and her…” Bzzz. “Yes Davor.”
“It was J.J. Simpleton, Bob.” The crowd go wild, split between cries of “the bitch deserved it” and outrage at the failure of the judicial system.

This could have been a memorable story for all the right reasons. It’s a clever enough conceit undone by the writer’s inability to trust his readers’ intelligence. Everything gets spelled out. It annoyed me. Perhaps this was the intention, crank up the ridiculousness to show how close reality actually measures up. Ironically his point would have been made much more explicitly simply by turning down the volume. Instead it’s like playing a game of poker with all your cards face up.

Kindling is an inadequate collection. Some pieces shine but even they can be let down by some sloppy writing – the plane ‘dropped like a stone into the East River’. It’s unoriginal and detracting. I get the feeling that Livingston has more to offer, but he’ll need to up his game. The reader will only forgive so many times before s/he closes the cover for good.